The Beaver Trust's Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer reflects of the success of beaver reintroductions, the role of zoos in that success and asks what next for beavers?
When Boris Johnson suddenly announces ‘Build Back Beaver ‘at a party conference this year you have to start wondering if beaver restoration has become an alliterated slogan, the latest rewilding trend or a sign of some sort of tipping point that this charismatic animal is finally back for good in the British consciousness.
This has not been an easy or straightforward journey. The Eurasian beaver ceased as a widespread and significant shaper of our wetlands around 400 years ago. Hunted to extinction for its highly-valued fur. After decades of speculation and debate, captive projects and monitored releases – both official and unofficial – can we say the beaver is back? Recent news and social media reports demonstrate the popularity of releases, albeit into enclosed projects run by a range of estates, Wildlife and National Trusts, Forestry Commission and private land owners. Additionally, growing wild populations are known in Perthshire, Kent and several counties in the south-west, some of which have potentially existed for 20 years. However still no wild releases have been permitted, bar limited augmentation to the Knapadale, mid-Argyll and River Otter, Devon, populations.
The return of the beaver has not been welcomed by all, with sections of the agricultural, fishing and some landowning communities frustrated at the impacts beavers can have especially in low-gradient and highly managed systems. Key areas of conflict exist around the availability of resources to manage these impacts and future beaver populations. Some of this is no doubt exacerbated by differing policies between the devolved British nations. Policy inconsistencies span licenced management and protection as a European Protected Species (EPS) in Scotland;, no real status in England bar one officially recognised population, and the creation of various Beaver Management Groups (BMGs) and in increasing numbers of enclosed projects, with the results of a national English consultation pending; and in Wales with a scattering of enclosed projects and a long-running proposal for wild releases repeatedly but unsuccessfully promoted by Wildlife Trust Wales. While each new enclosed release is generally met with huge excitement, the wider restoration picture is still sadly highly disjointed.
The role of zoos was pivotal in this journey. Namely the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) who picked up the previously rejected release licence application back in the mid-2000’s and, in close collaboration with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, successfully convinced the Scottish Government to permit the first scientific trial reintroduction of an extinct native mammal – the Scottish Beaver Trial. Specific skill sets in animal handling and management, veterinary care and genetic conservation saw beavers permitted to stay. In recent years the keeper and veterinary staff at Five Sister Zoo (FSZ) have become a key component of the translocation of beavers to projects throughout the country. Beavers in conflict areas in Perthshire, Scotland subject to lethal control, are trapped under licence, quarantined in specially built exclusive zoo facilities, examined and health screened to ensure not only the individual beavers health and welfare, but also that they pose no risk to wild and domestic animals in regions to which they are translocated, following the IUCN guidelines on wildlife translocations.
So what’s next and what can be done? Maybe Boris’s Build Back Beaver slogan is a belated recognition that in fact we do need to start recognising that beavers are going to be a growing part of our landscapes. In this time of climate change, and increasing environmental emergencies such as flooding, the beaver can play an important part in wetland recovery, ecological services and biodiversity benefits – if we are prepared to co-exist with its activities and manage impacts where needed. But it will require resources to support any landowners and certain land-uses impacted, such as mitigation costs to allow areas to naturalise. Critically, it will also require a mindset shift, especially on how we view the riparian zone. As a society can we move away from manicured river banks and highly managed woodlands to more overgrown green spaces, meandering water courses and increased dead wood?
The level of mis-information and concern over this fascinating, sometimes cryptic species is still high. It is time to dispel some of these myths and spread a new reality that these significant modifiers of landscapes will require varying degrees of management and mitigation that will bare financial costs, which can fall on individual landowners. What is less immediately obvious and of course harder to quantify are the multiple societal benefits from improvements to water quality, sediment retention, slowing the speed of water run-off and increased water storage, woodland regeneration and increased plant and animal biodiversity.
By Dr Roisin Campbell-Palmer
Restoration Manager, Beaver Trust
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